THE BLOG
03/25/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Teenagers With Anxiety and Depression: There's Hope -- Big Hope

I recently began a series of classes on mindfulness and meditation to help those challenged with chronic pain, depression and/or anxiety. About two weeks prior to the sessions, I looked at my registration list and half of my participants were teenagers. I was taken aback because this class was (#1) targeted to adults and (#2) just the act of signing up makes a bold statement. Let me restate that in a clearer way... can you imagine being 14 years old, signing up for a mindfulness/meditation class (where generally most folks don't have much of an idea about what is going to take place anyway), knowing that you might be the youngest one in the room... a room, no less, full of mature adults who are admittedly experiencing some sort of pain?!? THAT is just gutsy and signifies that this age group not only needs help but want it.

In a sense, that moment has awakened me. Let's explore the current state of affairs:

An article by Kalman Heller, Ph.D. -- Depression in Teens and Children. He writes:

Research indicates that one of every four adolescents will have an episode of major depression during high school with the average age of onset being 14 years.

September 2013, Time magazine -- The Drama of the Anxious Child. Article states:

Nowadays, there are still 10-20 percent with that reactive temperament, but the number of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder has skyrocketed, up to 25 percent according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

February 2014, San Jose Mercury News -- Teen Health: Depression, Anxiety and Social Phobias Rising in Kids, Educators Say . Most interesting tidbit here:

The increasing stress isn't just afflicting children of Silicon Valley's affluent and educated, who attend top schools among driven, college-bound peers. Though not yet reflected in lagging and incomplete national statistics, the trend appears to cut across social class, income level, ethnicity and academic ability.

March 2012 stats from the London-based Nuffield Foundation. Two important notes from the research:

The proportion of 15/16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, from 1 in 30 to 2 in 30 for boys and 1 in 10 to 2 in 10 for girls. The proportion of 15/16 year olds with behaviour problems (as rated by parents) also increased, from approximately 7 percent in 1974, to approximately 15 percent in 1999.

The next question is obviously, "Why?"

Why do young people get anxious/depressed in the first place, and why is it apparently increasing? Some of the theories: This issue has been attributed to physical/emotional abuse, difficulty with social interaction/bullying, learning disabilities, illness, genetics and brain injuries (e.g., concussions). Research indicates that the younger generation is more disconnected to community, the environment and social/political issues. And then there are the possible negative effects of the Internet, social media and violent movies and video games.

When I step back from all of this, there really is a simple solution regardless of the root cause. It's about getting back to basics, and this is where the powerful art of meditation and mindfulness come into play. These practices connect our children and teens not with a plug but with awareness tools that can guide, protect, support and champion them for the rest of their lives. Yes, there is hope... BIG hope.

On a biological level here's just a hint of what this incredible work does: It increases gray matter, it increases the size of the brain's hippocampus (responsible for emotion regulation and people with depression and PTSD typically have less gray matter here), it changes the way the brain responds to pain, it increases the release of dopamine and changes genetic structure (ooooh, yes, that too). Here is the latest "wow" study on mindfulness meditation specifically for anxiety and depression via the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine. States essentially that meditation may equal the effectiveness of depression drugs.

Now... on a bigger picture level from my vantage point:

1. Meditation teaches young people that a quiet space full of nothing-ness is more expansive and powerful than the media, their friends/peers, their past, their worries and stresses.
2. Meditation/mindfulness reminds teens that there is a way to get instant gratification when it comes to stress, pain and anxiety -- and it exists right in front of their faces (literally) -- they simply have to access the strength of their breath.
3. It shows them that they are indeed special, which is a key factor for change when someone is covered in a cloud of depression. And, this is not in the traditional way that modern society expresses it with empty trophies, accolades and via social media. Everyone is unique; everyone brings something important and sacred into this world. Meditation guides young people with depth and truth to their self-worth. And, when this happens... they seamlessly become more connected and aware of what's going on around them with society and the earth; the larger concepts that stir our passions.
4. It teaches young people to look at their anxiety/depression not with anger or remorse but as a reason to search for more. They will start to grasp that their bodies and minds are teachers... not instruments to hurt or sabotage. Physical/emotional challenges clearly illustrate that something is out-of-balance, and we must take personal responsibility to listen and react -- no matter what our age. The result is a new understanding and appreciation of our incredible human "packaging."
5. For depression, it allows a young person to find that piece within them that seems to be missing or has a hole. What they fill it with will be different for each individual. One drug won't help everyone; one treatment won't help everyone. Mindfulness helps teens discover what works for them.
6. It teaches them to weed out depreciating or negative self-talk. All of us have this; to be abrupt, I don't care who you are. Many times we don't know how to work with it, or we simply aren't aware enough to even hear it. With meditation/mindfulness, you become so connected to it that you must listen and can no longer push the thoughts down... and, with time, you won't want to. You will realize how exhausting that is. Deep down, we all want a clear/healthy mind that supports us.
7. I love the word authenticity. Kids want to be themselves (heck, we all do). As adults, however, we can become so lost from who we really are, what makes us happy or even how to laugh. Young adults and kids are often so close to their spark that when they can't tap into it... it can be extra frustrating. Meditation brings that spark to the forefront resulting in a radical acceptance of the self and therefore an embracing of life!

My chronic pain, depression/anxiety series that I referred to above ended just last night. One of my young ones noted that they had started taking medication for anxiety only a couple of months prior to the class. This person stated how they wished they had started meditation before going on the drug. My answer: "It doesn't matter... you have it now."

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